Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Nebraska


The Academy Awards are just a couple of weeks away, so I figured I would review some of the films that will be featured on Oscar Sunday. My experience with Nebraska is one of the weirdest I've had with a movie in a long time. Admittedly, I was supposed to have reviewed this film over three months ago. Prior to this film's release in November, I wrote a promotional piece where I predicted that it would earn tremendous accolades and multiple awards nominations. Based on director Alexander Payne's track record and the intriguing shooting style of the film, I immediately wanted to see this movie when I was approached to write the feature article, having never even heard of the film until then. I was supposed to attend the press screening of the film as well, though my crippling school schedule prevented me from doing so. While it certainly took more time and effort than I expected, I am pleased to say that I have finally seen Nebraska.

In Billings, Montana, an elderly man named Woody Grant is convinced by a mail-in sweepstakes letter that he's the winner of one million dollars. However, in order to collect his prize he needs to find a way to travel the hundreds of miles to Lincoln, Nebraska. Though he initially makes several unsuccessful attempts at the journey by foot whenever his wife's back is turned, Woody eventually convinces his son David, who realizes the entire thing is a scam, to accompany/drive him to Nebraska. Knowing his father doesn't have a lot of time left, and concerned with his erratic behavior, David takes advantage of the trip to get to know his dad, even as Woody begins to spread the word of his massive pay-day to shark-like relatives and so-called friends.

This is one of the most fascinating films I've seen in a long time. Bruce Dern is incredible as the soft-spoken Woody, concerned with nothing else but collecting his one million dollars. It's no surprise that he received a Best Actor nomination for the performance. His mannerisms are so innocent that you feel genuinely bad for the guy when he falls for the seemingly obvious scam, even as he drowns his other emotions in beer (which the former alcoholic doesn't call "drinking"). There is a lot of ironic humor in this film, and it's an honest yet hilarious portrayal of small-town life. Parts of it are silly and others are almost poetic, but it's the balancing act that Alexander Payne pulls off that brings everything together in such a satisfying way.

Though Nebraska is filmed in black-and-white, it doesn't call attention to it like some modern films tend to do. Having seen the film, I can't imagine it being captured in any other way. There's a reason it was nominated for Best Cinematography as the camera work fully utilizes its unique format as it perfectly frames the story in the vast expanses of Nebraska (the state). Simplicity is such a strength to this film in story, in dialogue and in visuals that it seems to mirror its main character in many ways. It's a great father-son road film, and I think everybody should try to watch it with their dads if possible.

Before I wrap this up, let me just take a moment to explain the R-rating this film was tagged with by the MPAA. While the movie does technically use the F-word twice as well as a few other swear words, it is by no means an "R-rated movie" in terms of content. Moneyball, a movie I love, had as much swearing (and surprisingly just as many F-bombs) and it was somehow rated PG-13. If the rating is turning you off from seeing the film, just ignore it this time.

Nebraska is a beautiful film, not just in terms of camera work, but also in the subtlety with which this story is told. It's a simple story of a relatively simple person, but the emotional insight it provides is quite complex and heart-tugging. This is one of the best films of 2013, and I hope everybody who is even slightly interested in this film gets a chance to see it. Though there are a lot of highly-rated movies on the site lately (it's not my fault I saw the really good ones all at once), I have to give Nebraska four stars.

NEBRASKA is rated R for some language